The Cult of Authenticity
Last weekend I went to a wedding in Napier, a village in the rural Overberg, about a two-hour drive from Cape Town. I saw a family of baboons sunbathing on the Akkedisberg mountain pass; went to a church bazaar and bought jam; and saw a shop (alas closed at the time) which sold ‘piesangs, psalmboeke en dinamiet’ (bananas, prayer books, and dynamite).
It was a very good weekend indeed. And made even better by the quantities of excellent food which I ate. I was struck, though, by the numbers of restaurants in Napier which advertised their menus as being particularly ‘authentic’. Napier is experiencing a kind of low-key gentrification at the moment, so this isn’t really all that surprising. But it was amusing how the idea of what is authentic was stretched beyond all recognition.
I had lunch at a place which specialises in ‘authentic tapas’ and was advised to order two items, as tapas are, well, small plates. I doubt that the vat of curried sweet potato soup and mound of salad, which included the best part of a head of butter lettuce and two avocados, I was served bore even the remotest resemblance to the tapas of Barcelona. But they were delicious.
I was wondering why, though, a café in a remote South African village would stake so much on serving authentic tapas. There is, I suppose, a kind of thrill in eating exotic, ‘real’ tapas. Even so, most of its clientele are unlikely to have sampled the real thing or, even, to care about the authenticity of their supper. (I don’t mean this in a patronising way. Travel abroad is expensive.)
This is part of a wider cultural trend, where people who describe themselves as ‘serious’ about food (I’m not entirely sure what that means) claim to be able to distinguish between those dishes which are really authentic – which are absolutely true replicas of the ‘original’ dish – and those which have been adulterated through adaptation.
For instance, Cape Town’s best Mexican restaurant El Burro advertises itself as ‘authentic’ Mexican cuisine, and local reviewers go out of their way to emphasise just how authentic its menu is: here is no inauthentic Tex- or Cal-Mex cooking, but, instead it is the Real Thing. (How many of them have actually visited Mexico is open to debate.)
There is, really, no such thing as ‘authentic’ Mexican – or Italian, or Spanish, or Greek, or Indian, or Thai, or Norwegian – cuisine. These, and other countries, have a range of cuisines, which differ from region to region, and which have also changed over time. As Jeffrey Pilcher argues in his recent book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, it is more accurate to refer to a number of Mexican cuisines which exist simultaneously both within and without the borders of the country.
The problem with trying to identify ‘authentic’ cuisine is that it’s rather like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The same dish will vary from area to area – from household to household – in one country. I have seen recipes for ‘authentic’ risotto which assert, with equal vehemence, that it should be so thick that you can stand a spoon in it or, equally, that it should be liquid and flowing. My mother’s recipe for bobotie – a South African delicacy – contains grated apple. My friend Carina’s mother’s recipe has no apple, but, rather, raisins. Which is the authentic version? Both. Neither.
Food changes over time. In the early twentieth century, the medical doctor, poet, Afrikaner nationalist, and Buddhist C. Louis Leipoldt recorded a recipe for bobotie which, in today’s terms, would be understood as a meatloaf: it was not the dish that, today, we think of as being bobotie – a layer of spiced, slightly sweet minced meat underneath a buttermilk and egg custard. Although according to the European Union, authentic Cornish pasties may contain only beef, swede, and potatoes, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Cornish miners in the past had a range of ingredients in their pies – and not only this holy pasty trinity.
There is also the problem of anachronism. Mexico became an independent state in 1810 and its borders changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Should only those dishes which were made within the country’s present boundaries be considered ‘Mexican’? The state of Texas remained part of Mexico until 1836, and significant numbers of Mexicans settled in the United States – particularly in New Mexico, California, and Arizona. Should we consider Texan cuisine to be Mexican? And, surely, it would be churlish somehow to consider the cuisine developed by Mexicans in the United States as somehow being of less value than that prepared by Mexicans in Mexico (whatever we may mean by ‘Mexico’)?
So which version do we accept as being the ‘real’ version of a dish? Which one is ‘authentic’? More often than not, a range of factors not particularly linked to food influence our decisions over what is considered to be properly authentic. There is a connection, for instance, between nationalism and cookery books. During the nineteenth century, middle-class Mexicans living in the United States used food both to maintain links with Mexico, as well as to assert the sophistication of Mexican culture. Encarnación Pinado’s El cocinero español (The Spanish Chef), published in 1898, described a Mexican cuisine made using modern technology, and incorporating dishes from Mexico, European, and the Mexican-American borderlands.
Something similar happened in Italy, as Tim Hayward explains:
‘Authentic’ Italian food has an even odder story. Pellegrino Artusi was a writer with a political desire to unify the regions of Italy into a single country and thought, quite logically, that food might be a way to do it. In La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), 1891, he combined all the regional recipes he could find and in doing so artificially assembled what we regard today as ‘Italian’ food.
In fact, a lot of what we consider to be ‘real’ Italian food today, was created in a dialogue between Italian immigrants in the United States and Italians at home. Even relatively poor immigrants could afford the tomatoes, dried pasta, olive oil, meat, and dairy products which constituted the feast dishes of the homeland. This invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.
Authentic cuisines are, then, heavily constructed. There is no direct, unmediated way of accessing the food of the past. Indeed, it is also pretty difficult to replicate the cooking of foreign countries at home. Rachel Laudan notes that if she were to write a cookbook on ‘authentic’ Mexican cooking, she would have to take into account the difficulty of finding many ingredients outside of Mexico:
I’d probably leave out the spinal cord soup, the sopa de medulla so popular in Central Mexico (fear of mad cow disease makes that a no-no) and I’d leave out quelites, the mixed wild greens sold already cooked in the markets (too difficult to get hold of in the States). I’d probably also leave out tripe, sugar milk and fruit confections and aroles, the family of thick gruels that warm Mexicans on cold winter mornings (not at all to my conception of Mexican taste).
Also, she argues that she would be constrained by middle-class Americans’ own ideas around what should constitute Mexican cuisine. The cult of authenticity is informed not only by snobbery (being able to identify and cook the ‘real thing’ is a marker of sophistication), but also by a powerful nostalgia for a pre-industrialised food past where all cooking was done from scratch:
I’d include photos of colourful fruit and vegetables stalls but not my neighbourhood supermarket shelves stocked with Danone yogurt and cornflakes.
I’d ignore my friend’s mother’s recipe for lemon Jell-O with evaporated milk. I’d pass over dishes that used Worcestershire sauce, pita bread and Gouda cheese, as well as recipes for Cornish pasties, hot cakes and biscuits, even though all of these are commonplace in Mexico.
This is a nostalgia produced by anxieties around change and a perceived homogenisation of the world’s diets. It is partly as a result of this concern that old ways of cooking and eating are being ‘lost’ that the EU introduced a protected geographical status framework in 1993, which provides legal protection to certain dishes and products in the EU, preventing them from being copied elsewhere. So only sparkling wine produced in Champagne can be called ‘champagne’, and only Prosciuitto Toscano made in Tuscany can be called Prociutto Tascano.
For all that this is an attempt to preserve a food heritage, as the philosopher Julian Baggini makes the point, the EU actually decides what is authentic and what is not:
For instance, ‘traditional stilton was a raw-milk cheese up until the late 80s,’ says Dominic Coyte of Neal’s Yard Dairy. But when the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association got PDO protection in 1996, they stipulated that it be made with pasteurised milk. Hence the irony that the raw-milk stichelton, first produced by traditional methods in 2006, is arguably the most authentic stilton available, but it cannot carry the name.
Similarly, UNESCO’s recognition of Mexican cuisine, the French ‘gourmet meal’, the Mediterranean diet, and the gingerbread craft of Northern Croatia as the ‘intangible patrimony of humanity’ in 2010, fixed these culinary traditions in aspic. Also, the Mexican application focussed on only one regional cuisine, the ‘Michoacán paradigm,’ which, interestingly, happened to feature the home state of the President, Felipe Calderón…
This recognition from UNESCO will boost the region’s tourism, and EU appellations have helped many small producers in Europe to continue to work in difficult economic times. The mania for ‘authenticity’ helps, inadvertently, to force our attention to how people cooked and ate in the past – to look at methods, ingredients, and cultivars which we may have forgotten. We shouldn’t try to return to the past, but we can certainly learn from it.
My problem with the cult of authenticity – other than its tedious pedantry – is that it conflates eating ‘authentically’ with some ability to make a meaningful difference in the world. More often that not, peasant food is labelled authentic food. Even the most passing familiarity with what most poor people eat will demonstrate that people’s diets improve as their disposable income increases. Peasant food in Italy before the mid-twentieth century was nutritionally inadequate: it consisted of bread and polenta with onions oil and, occasionally, cheap fish and vegetables.
There is nothing wrong with eating peasant food, but it is deeply problematic to believe that eating ‘real’ peasant food represents a solidarity with the struggles of the poor. In fact, it’s a distraction from the ways in which food and big agricultural companies exploit labourers and put small and peasant farmers out of business.
Food is political. Particularly if it’s ‘authentic.’
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.